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By Andrew Hood
Carlos Sastre clipped out of his pedals following a time trial performance Tuesday at the Vuelta a Castilla y León that might have caused concern among certain quarters.
While Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador roared to a one-two sweep in the 28.2km race of truth, Sastre was a lowly 36th at 2:32 off the pace, hardly what one would expect from the defending Tour de France champion.
“Tranquilo, todo tranquilo,” Sastre said as he stopped to sign two quick autographs and disappear into a small, Cervélo TestTeam camper van. “Everything’s fine.”
There’s hardly a hint of panic or worry for Sastre in his European debut in what’s his “hometown” race.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite for the 33-year-old Spanish rider who hails from Ávila, one of the major cities in the Castilla y León region where this week’s race is taking place.
Sastre completely relaxed as he quietly prepares for the Giro d’Italia and a defense of the Tour crown.
Sastre obviously doesn’t feel the pressure to post a big result or try to impress his rivals with strong early season form. Self-confidence has never been lacking in the ever-steady Sastre.
“The sensations aren’t bad. It was an important test for me, in so far that I could see that things are going into the way that I had hoped. After two weeks of good weather at home that allowed me to train in normal conditions, the truth is the sensations haven’t been bad,” Sastre said about his TT performance. “This helps me to keep believing that things are going well and that my presence in the most important races, in the Giro d’Italia, can be more than sufficient.”
The Tour champ is racing for the first time in Europe this year after his season debut at the Tour of California that was cut short with a bout of the flu.
Sastre believes he’s right on track to be ready for his first major goal, a run at the podium at the Giro.
Until then, he’s content to roll in the middle of the pack without calling too much attention to himself.
“For me, this race is important to gain the level that I need. This is the time to suffer at the beginning of the season and work to later obtain my objectives,” he continued. “The most important thing right now is to make kilometers of quality and I believe this race is ideal for that.”
Sastre has changed his program for 2009 to focus on both the Giro and Tour, leaving the Vuelta a España aside for the time being, a switch from his typical racing program that focused on the Tour and then the Vuelta.
Sastre rarely has won before the middle part of the season. In fact, he’s only won one race – the Klasica Primavera in April of 2006 – before July during his 12-year professional career.
Teammate Iñigo Cuesta said the team is confident that Sastre will be ready for the Giro and Tour double.
“Everything is going well. Right now we’re at this race to regain the feeling of competition. The result isn’t so important as the progress,” Cuesta said. “What counts is later this season, not now.”
Sastre said he’s aiming for at least a podium spot at the Giro so he can complete his sweep of podium finishes in all three grand tours.
Carlos Sastre in grand tours
Tour de France: 1st + stage win in 2008; 4th in 2007; 3rd in 2006; 21st in 2005; 8th in 2004; 9th + stage win in 2003; 10th in 2002; 20th in 2001
Vuelta a España: 3rd in 2008; 2nd in 2007; 4th in 2006; 2nd in 2005; 6th in 2004; 35th in 2003; 8th in 2000
Giro d’Italia: 43rd in 2006; 38th in 2002; 101st in 1999